Taming anxiety around public speaking

Public speaking is a skill that inspires dread in many: fear of judgement, of making mistakes, of facing unpredictable circumstances. Here, Patty Raun draws on her experience as an actor to share tips for quelling the anxiety

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7 May 2024
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Public speaking, a skill loved by few and loathed by many, evokes emotions from mild nervousness to paralysing fear. Yet leaders in higher education need these skills to connect across differences. As a trained professional actor, I have inherited and inhabit this ancient tradition and am a part of growing community of researchers exploring how the tools of storytelling and theatre can be applied in the wider world.

Many people are surprised to hear that I am an introvert; when I’m preparing to speak in front of others, my heart pounds so loudly that I wonder if audiences can hear it. I am a living example of how theatre techniques can help us overcome our fears of speaking before audiences. I am grateful that I can help those who connect with the Center for Communicating Science, which I direct, and participants in the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability at Virginia Tech to build vital connections through stories.

Acknowledge the human connection

When we speak to an audience, we are connecting with other humans, and this is what makes it scary. Anxiety from social pressure, uncertainty and fear of judgement all contribute to the stomach-clenching apprehension so many of us experience. Connecting with others in any context is disconcerting because it’s unpredictable and we’re vulnerable.

Let’s look at these perceived dangers more closely.

  • Unpredictability: When we address people, we cannot predict how they will react. In general, unpredictability makes us uncomfortable. What if we get questions we cannot answer? Speaking to an audience means embracing the unknown and becoming comfortable with that. Facing fear head-on is where we find personal growth. Yes, it feels stressful to speak in front of people, but there’s also opportunity there – we might just make new connections.
  • Vulnerability: I always tell my students at the beginning of the semester that they will probably see me cry at some point. When we’re vulnerable, we experience a range of emotions. We all carry shields to protect us, but being vulnerable requires that we turn those shields into windows. Transparency and vulnerability can draw people in. We must let others see us through that window.
  • Distance: The spaces between us are not only physical but those of outlook. Our life experiences give us unique perspectives. When we establish a connection with our audience, we bridge that distance and move closer to one another. Sometimes that requires hard work to see the other person’s point of view.

Reimagine judgement

When we speak in public, we open ourselves up to evaluation and critique. The thought of being scrutinised and potentially criticised by our peers can be daunting. I urge speakers to understand that the value of human connection transcends our own self-consciousness. When we’re invited to share our research or our work publicly, we are being asked to share our knowledge. We do not need to defend ourselves because a certain level of trust is implied. Taking that one step further, if we let our own fears interrupt us, we’re not fully doing our jobs – because if a researcher has not communicated their work to the people who need it, they have not finished their work. Each person is an expert in something. If you have been asked to share your expertise; the honour of that knowledge can give you confidence. It might also lead you to seek out the expertise of your communication partners.

Reframe the narrative

To alleviate the pressure of public speaking, I recommend reframing the narrative. We need to see our communication partners as potential friends and collaborators with joys, and fears and concerns that we know nothing about. We are not addressing an “audience” but rather individuals who have chosen to participate in this moment with us.

I once auditioned for a well-known director in New York City, who greeted me with a fierce frown, which immediately sapped my confidence. I wanted to leave, but in that moment, I forced myself to reframe the narrative. I made up a comically exaggerated story in my mind about the awful week he’d had, and this completely transformed my attitude. I felt empathy for him, which relaxed me. And, yes, I was offered the role.

If none of this comes naturally, that’s where practice comes in. Flex the muscle and it will get stronger.

When we feel anxious in front of an audience, let’s celebrate that it’s because we care; and more than that, our audience cares as well. While public-speaking anxiety may never completely disappear, there are strategies and techniques that can help us manage and alleviate anxiety. By understanding the roots of public-speaking anxiety, we can become more confident and proficient speakers. Who knows? We may find ourselves actively seeking out more opportunities to speak publicly because when we truly connect with an audience, the experience is energising, invigorating and quite magical.

Patricia Raun is director of the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech and professor of theatre in the School of Performing Arts. She was director of the School of Performing Arts from 2002 to 2016.

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